I’m not a movie critic I’m a storyteller and I love a good story well told. Yesterday I gained a new appreciation for a storyteller I have long admired. J.K Rowling returned to the world she created and brought us back into the secret society of witches and wizards with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
A couple of things struck me about this story. First, it was immediately familiar and welcomed you right in like we’d never been gone. And second, this story was set so far apart from the Harry Potter story where someone with no context to her original series could enjoy this world for all its wonder and not feel completely lost.
Rowling set her latest story seventy years and an ocean apart from 4 Privet Drive and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and yet from the opening scene you knew you were right back in the magical world of wands and sorcery. In the medium of film, a writer is not alone in the task of telling their story and in many ways relies on the director to bring the story to life. David Yates is well acquainted with the Harry Potter universe having directed the final four films and he did not miss a beat bringing us to 1920’s New York where magical society facing its own set of challenges with the No-Maj population.
This was just one small way in which Rowling beautifully distinguished both the time period and cultures from one another. Wizards and witches in the United States in the 20th century called non-magical folks No-Maj as opposed to Muggles. This was introduced and explained early on in the story as Newt Scamander stepped off the boat from England and signaled to the audience that things weren’t going to be what they were used to. Certainly we were treated to familiar spells and names, like Albus Dumbledore, but much of the setting and tone was different from what we experienced in our first introduction to the magical world through the eyes of the boy who lived.
Although New Scamander was an established Wizard he was more than a little out of place in the society and culture of New York. This was a perfect way for Rowling to expand her universe as we could travel with Scamander and leave a world we knew for a different place and time, both we and Scamander could share a frame of reference and experience the new world together.
For those who had never before visited Rowling’s magical universe, presumably due to them either being too cool for what they deemed to be a children’s story or having been in a coma for the past twenty years, they also had a character who journeyed with them in the No-Maj aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski. This is where Rowling gave us something we never had before, an uninitiated character with no magical connection. Jacob’s reaction to this stunning revelation of the existence of magic was highly entertaining and although he took most of them in stride we were able to get a different perspective that was refreshing and new.
Speaking of different perspectives, this story was centered around adult characters with adult problems and concerns, which set an entirely different tone from Harry Potter. Not only did we have Scamander and Kowalski trying to navigate a foreign environment but we were introduced to the recently demoted Auror Tina Goldstein who had her own set of problems seeking to redeem herself with the Magical Congress. This was a far cry from children playing Quidditch, sneaking to Hogsmeade, and preparing for exams.
Finally, there was no prophetic child or You Know Who but we did have reference to a dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald, who we learned about in the Deathly Hallows and a nice Easter Egg to that story along the way, yet another example of the something familiar yet new in this fantastic story [pun intended].
In closing I would like to give one last tip of my hat to Rowling and Yates not only as collective storytellers but for their individual accomplishments within the film. First, Rowling introduced a mystery right from the beginning of a powerful unseen force and those that pursued it. This mystery was slowly unfolded throughout the story in a masterful way and the ramifications were far more complicated and tragic than the physical destruction it wreaked. Second, Yates got top notch performances out of a tremendous cast led by the Academy Award winning Eddie Redmayne. I felt like the character portrayals and interactions were pitch perfect which was highlighted by the final interaction between Scamander and Goldstein. This punctuated the story beautifully and sent my anticipation for what is to come through the theater roof.
Whether you are a fan of the Harry Potter series or just waking up from your decade’s long coma, you should treat yourself to this new adventure and a story well told.